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“The place
of crime and delinquency in the lives of the adolescent boys who
served time in Coxsackie and similar reformatories has never been
given a full accounting. If the educational reformers were reasonably
clear eyed when it came to educational and work histories, they
generally missed the significance of criminal histories. That this
should be overlooked is not entirely surprising, after all, the chief
selling point for the state’s focus on the adolescent male offender
was the promise of early intervention – that confinement at the
first signs of serious criminality would interrupt the start of a
potentially serious criminal career. Through youthful offender laws
New York simultaneously suppressed and denied serious criminality
among teenage boys.

critical histories of the reformatory tend to share this notion of
the naive youthful offender, arguing that progressive reforms tended
to have a ‘new widening’ effect, as the state expanded its reach
over otherwise stable patterns of youthful behavior. New York’s
intensified focus on the adolescent offender did
widen the net of
surveillance and control, but
there is no reason to assume that underlying patterns of adolescent
behavior were static. The ability of young men to cause troubles has
a historical specificity that, combined with criminal justice system
behavior, produced the patterns of adolescent criminal careers.

case files reveal that most of Coxsackie’s prisoners had been
arrested prior to the arrest that sent them to the reformatory. In
the case file sample, more than four of every five prisoners arrived
with prior arrests – far more than the general population of
adolescent criminal defendants. The average number of prior arrests
per inmate was quite stable over time, as was the relative
distribution of the number of arrests. There may have been a slight
rise in the proportion of never-arrested inmates in the post-war
years, although this difference may well be accounted for by a
decline in ‘unknown’ cases that could generally have been cases
of no record of arrest.

prisoners had far more previous institutional experience than the
designers of the reformatory could have imagined. The case sample of
Coxsackie inmates shows 118 (31.8%) having some prior institutional
commitment, a number that does not count jail time that might have
accompanied previous arrests. Unlike prior arrest patterns, the
experience of institutional commitment clearly declines over time in
the sample The percentage of Coxsackie prisoners with no prior
commitments rises with each five-year group, capturing part of what
may have been an even longer historical decline – fully one-half
of new commitments to the House of Refuge in 1925 had already spent
time in another institution

decline has two plausible explanations. One possibility is that the
opening of the Elmira Reception Center in 1945 diverted prisoners
with institutional experience from Coxsackie. A second possibility,
made more likely  by the House of Refuge data, is that young men
after World War II were simply less likely than previous generations
to be committed to an institution before they turned 16 years old.
Certainly this is most plausible in the case of private institutional
confinement, as the numbers of children in foster care began to
surpass the numbers in institutional care. To the extent that these
developments may have also depressed public institutional
commitments, it may help explain the decline…

case file sample does suggest, however, that Coxsackie inmates with
institutional experience frequently found themseves in a kind of
revolving door of placements within the complex of public and private
institutions that governed New York’s adolescent boys. Willie .,
growing up in New Rochelle with his immigrant parents, first
encountered the legal system just after his thirteenth birthday, when
a juvenile court judge sentenced him to probation because of
persistent delinquency. Two months later, Willie made another
juvenile court appearance, again because of his refusal to attend
school regularly. Six months passed before the next court appearance:
this time, the judge sentenced Willie to the Children’s Village, a
private juvenile institution where he lasted only four months before
being returned to the courts as ‘ungovernable.’  Unwilling to
return the young man to his parents, the court adjudicated him a
neglected child and sent him to St. Benedict’s home for Colored
Children in Rye, New York. He lasted two months before the
administrators of St. Benedict’s returned him to the court, where
he was adjudicated delinquent again and sent his first ‘state’
institution, the New York Training School at Warwick. At Warwick,
Willie made three escape attempts before being released. Following
this, he was adjudicated delinquent yet again (at age 15) and sent to
Industry, where he was paroled in February 1940. His freedom lasted
just six weeks before an arrest for assault sent him to Coxsackie.”

– Joseph F. Spillane, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform. Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 2014. pp.81-84.


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